Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A Book that Changed My Life

People talk about books that changed their lives.  There is one which had a profound impact on mine, whether you agree philosophically (or politically) or not.  That book was Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique. In that book I saw reflected my mother's experience as a widow trying to raise three kids in the 1950s. At times, there were those who tried to take advantage of her because she was a woman.

A case in point:  Not long after my father died in 1954, we moved back to Jacksonville, Florida, where her mother and sister lived.  A couple years later, Mom bought an electric lawnmower from Sears, Roebuck & Co. (as the firm used to be called; now it's just Sears).  When the mower broke down, she took it to Sears for repairs, and told the service manager that she was to be called with an estimate (a provision which is now in law) before any work would be done.  Days later, she received a call from Sears saying the mower had been repaired and the repairs cost a fat sum of money for a widow in 1956 making maybe $65 a week take-home.

Mom informed the caller that she had left explicit instructions that she be called with an estimate before any work was done.  The caller smugly informed her that "Mr. Packard" had authorized the repairs.  My mother firmly informed the caller that she was a widow and the only "Mr. Packard" in the house was a 12-year-old boy who had definitely not taken any calls from Sears.  After the dust settled, Mom got the mower back without paying one cent.

Don't believe things like that happened?  Take it from me, they did.  And much worse.

When I was 12 I had already had an experience with male-dominated society which left me angry.  In 8th grade civics class, the teacher brought in a right-wing speaker who spouted off about how women should, basically, be barefoot, pregnant, and always married.  He castigated widowed and divorced women who did not immediately remarry, and it was more than I could take, and apparently more than one other girl whose mother was also a widow could take.  We both protested loudly, stating in no uncertain terms what we thought of this fool.  It probably is a wonder we did not get sent to the office and assigned detention for our speaking out, but perhaps that is exactly what the teacher had wanted.  I do remember that he was standing there smiling.  Perhaps this had been a lesson in the American right to protest and speak one's mind.

So at 14 I read Betty Friedan's book, and was changed.  Even at times, my mother had bought into the "mystique," discouraging me from wanting to do anything other than the usual "girl" things for the 1950s and early 1960s -- home, teaching, nursing, or secretarial work.  But I had wanted to be a newspaper reporter, a writer.  I had wanted to play in the band (which other girls did do).  And I had wanted to join the Navy, following my father's example, a thought which horrified my mother and my brother and brought immediate censure.  Amid all the discouragement, I found in Friedan the encouragement that I could do what I wanted to do, that I had the right to self-determination, something we take for granted (most of us) for our daughters these days.

Did it make me a man-hating feminazi?  Not by a long shot.  I am happily married to a great guy, and have had a number of male friends as well (it IS possible, contrary to what some people who can't think beyond their gonads may say).  I like men.  It is ideology -- of whatever stripe -- I can't stand.  What the book taught me was to see people as PEOPLE, that women and men, for the most part, just want more than anything else to live the life they feel most comfortable and happy in.  There is not a thing wrong with that, and I think it is every individual's God-given right.

So I went on to do a lot of things in my life, many of them "girl" things.  I actually did become a nurse, and I enjoyed it and found satisfaction in it.  Unfortunately, I also foud stress in it, especially when we had three deaths in our own family within a short span of time, and I had to stop.  I married and had two children, delighting in them and taking seriously my Mom role (including instilling in my daughters that they had the right to determine their own lives).  On the other hand, I did join the military.  I enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve, with the support and to the great delight of my husband, and I enjoyed that, too, rising from Yeoman Third Class to Lieutenant (junior grade).  And I am finally, in fulfillment of my childhood dream, a writer, with two books under my belt and working on what I hope will become the third.

What books changed your lives?

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